Zork (1977)

Serious nerd history lesson incoming. The first Dungeons & Dragons videogame came out in 1982 for the Intellivision, but the burgeoning industry was already under the tabletop game’s influence. By 1980, two games represented a kind of fork in the philosophical road for computerized RPGs. Rogue focused on the dangers of dungeon crawling and complex rule sets that verged on the mystical – it was essentially a simulation of D&D mechanics where stories emerged from the action without narrative guidance. Down the other path lay Zork.

Zork was developed by students at MIT from 1977 to 1979. It was inspired by Will Crowther’s 1975 mainframe game Colossal Cave Adventure that, though it lacked monsters, was directly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons sessions (which included Zork writer and Infocom founder Dave Lebling). Zork was definitely fantasy, though, with a vast underground empire to explore, treasures to find and monsters to fight (or be eaten by, if we’re talking about the darkness dwelling Grue).

Zork is an interactive fiction, that is, everything is presented as text. You direct your actions by typing them into the command line and a bit of code known as a text parser acts as a kind of dungeon master (Zork III’s subtitle actually is Dungeon Master, come to think of it), interpreting your commands and telling you their consequences. If the Dave Arneson school of D&D thought sought to have players inhabit the fantasy stories he read and loved, then Zork is perhaps the closest we’ve come to that Platonic ideal.

I love Zork. It is as old as I am, has no flashy graphics, and yet remains my favorite videogame of all time. It stoked my imagination as no other videogame has, but in ways similar to D&D. As a kid, peering at the green monochrome screen, trying (and mostly failing) to work out the devious puzzles. I didn’t make much of a distinction between Zork and Dungeons & Dragons. Even though they didn’t share a brand name, I knew they were both facets of a larger world.

Interactive fiction mostly died out in the late 80s, leaving the mechanical influence of D&D to dominate videogames until recent years, when technology has allowed complex narrative to remarry rules systems in something that approximates the experience of telling a story with friends around the gaming table. Sort of. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

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